The foods we love do not seem to love us back if recent studies and warnings about their dangers are anything to go by.
Reports suggest that some popular foods have been found to either be carcinogenic or to contain chemicals and additives that can be harmful to our bodies. With all the harmful things to look out for, the secret may be in moderation for even a good thing can be destructive if taken in excess.
STEP AWAY FROM THE JUICE
Converting whole fruit into liquid requires a lot of processing. Along the way, the once-healthy fruit gets pasteurised, pulverised, filtered, puréed and stored in massive containers for months at a time, all of which chips away at the nutrients and belly-filling fibre the fruit once had.
For example, the average 350ml of soda contains roughly 35g to 45g of sugar. The same amount of orange juice comes in at about 30g, apple juice delivers about 40g and pomegranate juice can top 45g. This is too much sugar to consume in one sitting, no matter what type of beverage it is.
Juicing also releases the sugars in fruit and removes the insoluble fibre. Blending also releases the sugars and tears apart the insoluble fibre. Most of the sugar in fruit is fructose, which can only be processed by the liver.
A small amount of fructose, in an apple, for example, does us no harm because we consume it along with the fibre. Fibre protects us against the effects of fructose by slowing its absorption, and also makes us feel full.
Fruit juice, on the other hand, is absorbed immediately, like all sugary drinks, as the fibre has been removed. Experts say drinking fructose in liquid form stops the liver from doing its job properly, which is linked to a range of health problems. A research in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows increasing intake of sugar-sweetened soda is independently associated with increasing risk of gout.
What to do: The acceptable amount of sugar intake should be no more than 10g a day at the most, which certainly takes fruit juice off the table.
SOMETHING MEATY, ANYONE?
When it comes to red meat, there is research as well as high-profile campaigns by advocacy groups on both sides of the debate. However, the deliciousness of red meat has long been considered to be outweighed by its side effects.
Some red meats are high in saturated fats, which raise blood cholesterol and increase the risk of heart disease. A study done by Harvard University reveals that eating unprocessed meat is associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes.
The study shows that the risk of diabetes is 20 per cent higher in those who eat over 110g of unprocessed red meat a day. Of those who eat a serving of processed meat, the risk of type 2 diabetes grows 50 per cent higher.
Processed red meat includes meat products that have been cured, pre-cooked, comminuted or have preservatives and binding ingredients added. Examples of processed meat include hotdogs, sausages, burgers and corned beef.
What to do: As for advice around specific food changes, health experts have increasingly focused on the importance of overall diets.
Some note focusing on single foods, which often have a complex mix of nutrients, can also distract from a simpler message: Don’t eat too much, since eating more calories than you burn makes you gain weight.
TAKE IT WITH A PINCH OF SALT
In most Kenyan homes you’ll find a salt shaker placed strategically in the kitchen. And we all want to sprinkle some or add a pinch of salt during meal time. But, research shows there’s a danger in this.
In fact, the salt sold in supermarkets and those fancy salt shakers in restaurants could soon be required to carry a front-of-pack, tobacco-style health warning if the World Hypertension League and leading international health organisations have their way.
The experts say the warning should serve as a reminder for people to limit their sodium intake and slash their risk of serious diseases.
The group of doctors from around the world envisions salt shakers and table salt bought in supermarkets to have a label on the front saying “limit your use”.
The authors proposed the following wording for the warning: “Excess sodium can cause high blood pressure and promote stomach cancer. Limit your use.”
Dr Norm Campbell, former President of the World Hypertension League wrote in the Journal of Clinical Hypertension, that it was time for a more hard-hitting approach to dietary salt reduction.
“Unhealthy diets are a leading cause of death globally and excess salt consumption is the biggest culprit, estimated to cause over three million deaths globally in 2017.”
“The World Health Organisation established a target for countries to reduce sodium intake by 30 per cent by 2025, and governments and the food industry have been working together to reduce salt in processed foods. However, urgent action now needs to be taken to raise consumer awareness of these dangers,” added Dr Campbell.
Salt, also known as sodium chloride, is about 40 per cent sodium and 60 per cent chloride.
The human body requires a small amount of sodium to conduct nerve impulses, contract and relax muscles, and maintain the proper balance of water and minerals.
It is estimated that we need about 500mg of sodium daily for these vital functions.
But, too much sodium in the diet can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. It can also cause calcium losses, some of which may be pulled from the bone.
The call to have the warning on salt has been welcomed by doctors in Kenya who say this could save millions of lives.
Dr Andrew Suleh, a consultant physician, renal and tropical medicine specialist, says while salt is an important component in our everyday diet, excess can make it hard for the kidney to function properly.
He says apart from the salt people add to the food they cook at home, there are other sources taken subconsciously. “Most processed foods are preserved using salt and that increases the salt intake. The body needs about 1.5g to 2.3g of salt a day yet most people only think of the salt they used when cooking. They forget that the small snacks will make their salt intake above the recommended grammes,” he says.
Dr Eliud Opiyo, a family doctor in Nairobi, says health warnings on the salt package could prove to be a simple, cost-effective way of showing the dangers of salt to billions of people worldwide. “People are not usually aware of how much salt they are consuming and what impact that has on their blood pressure. The warnings can send some shock wave that would deter many,” he says.
He says salt makes the body hold on to water and if one takes too much, the extra water stored in the body raises the blood pressure. “So, the more salt you eat, the higher your blood pressure. The higher your blood pressure, the greater the strain on your heart, arteries, kidneys, and brain. This can lead to heart attacks, strokes, dementia and kidney disease,” he adds.
If kidney disease is left untreated and the blood pressure is not lowered, the damage can lead to kidney failure. This is when the kidneys are no longer able to filter the blood and the body becomes poisoned by its toxic waste products.
Signatories to the position statement include World Hypertension League, Resolve to Save Lives, World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre on Salt Reduction, The George Institute for Global Health, World Action on Salt and Health, Consensus Action on Salt and Health, World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre for Nutrition, University of Warwick, Hypertension Canada and the British and Irish Hypertension Society.
What to do: Dr Opiyo says that reducing daily intake of salt by five grammes cuts cardiovascular mortality by 17 per cent and stroke mortality by 23 per cent.
A low salt diet leads to an increase in life expectancy since it reduces the risk of hypertension by 30 per cent and the benefit of medication is doubled when daily salt intake is reduced by 4.6g, he says.
BREAD: TO GO BROWN?
Your easiest, cheapest breakfast option could be your greatest undoing healthwise. Except the weight concerns associated with wheat, bread — our household staple — has been found to have major health risks.
The debate has been whether to take brown or white bread. A study published in the BMJ journal found that highly-processed carbohydrates, such as white breads, are digested quickly and they cause a blood sugar spike soon after eating.
Because they lack fibre, a person does not feel full, hence craving more food soon after eating. A high intake of simple carbohydrates can lead to weight gain and a higher risk of diabetes, heart disease and other lifestyle-related chronic conditions. The highly-processed flour and additives (such as sugar and oil) in white, packaged bread can also make it unhealthy.
What to do: Avoid bread with corn syrup or any ingredient ending in “-ose” listed at the beginning of the ingredient list. Ingredient lists are ordered by their weight, so those near the top are present in relatively high proportions.
Moderation will not lead to weight gain, but filling sandwiches with processed meat and other high-fat ingredients can do so.
THE POISON IN YOUR CUPPA
Next to water, tea is the most popular beverage in the world, which is not a bad thing. There are various types of tea and a seemingly endless body of research has linked it with a huge number of mental and physical health benefits.
However, for green tea, because it naturally contains a small amount of caffeine, it is unsuitable for people with caffeine sensitivity, and should not be drunk in large quantities by women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
Black tea is also thought to have similar negative elements. Mainly, the caffeine in it is believed to contribute to stiffening of arteries. A new study published in the International Journal of Cancer found people who drink steaming hot tea could be at a higher risk for oesophageal cancer. While previous studies have linked hot beverages to oesophageal cancer, none pointed to a specific temperature until now.
What to do: The amount of caffeine is small and makes tea a healthier alternative to coffee. Some health experts claim the benefits of tea are overrated. They point out that a better way to hydrate your skin is to drink water. Water is also thought to be better than tea for the health of your gut.
UGALI, YOU ASK? YES, EVEN UGALI
Kenyans have a decades-long relationship with this staple and so it is difficult to believe there could be anything wrong with it.
However, the increasing use of pesticides to improve yields and keep pests and insects at bay, means the residues of these chemicals in the crops can eventually find themselves on your plate.
Reports of contamination of maize with aflatoxins have made matters worse. The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies aflatoxin in the highest category of carcinogens. A recent study by Nairobi-based International Livestock Research Institute also attributed poor development among children living in Dagoretti and Korogocho slums of Nairobi to the consumption of cereals infested with aflatoxin. Their findings correlated with a recent study conducted by Kenya Medical Research Institute that revealed a quarter of pregnant women in Western Kenya were consuming toxic levels of aflatoxin.
What to do: The solution, experts say, is to ensure proper storage and drying of maize to keep out aflatoxin.
HOLD THAT KALE!
There's no doubt that sukumawiki is an excellent health food. However, the use of pesticides has adverse effects on the kale on your plate because it contains the chemical residues.
According to Oregon State University’s Linus Pauling Institute, kale has long been hailed for its heart healthy and cancer-fighting properties, but it also contains progoitrin, a compound that can interfere with thyroid hormone synthesis, as well as thiocyanate ions, which can overwhelm the iodine your thyroid needs. This can result in fluctuating blood sugar levels and weight.
A research by the universities of Nairobi and Sweden, published in the East African Medical Journal, shows Nairobi residents are eating highly contaminated sukumawiki, the product of poor quality water and unhygienic handling and transportation to the market. Plants growing in soil with increased cadmium levels would absorb the heavy metal, and if these plants then enter the human food chain through crops, they can adversely impact health.
What to do: Choosing sukumawiki grown by small-scale farmers may be a better option as it might be better handled.